March 12th, 2010
What’s a finity and how do I get me some of that? Sorry, I was thinking out loud. I mean affinity. Today’s question is, how do we create affinity to an institution?
To what purpose you might ask? Well, to build a relationship for the long haul, to encourage identification with the university, to make students feel a part of it all, so that when the alumni office eventually comes calling they might consider making a donation to a scholarship fund or to an endowed chair, even towards a lab or a building, rather than slamming the phone down (can you slam a cell phone? More like snap the cover shut, or press disconnect really aggressively.)
It’s not just about money. It’s about establishing a foundation for belonging. Money is a benefit of that.
I have been asked this question lately, and, with some of my colleagues, have been considering it. There is no easy answer. You can’t manufacture affinity; you have to earn it, encourage it, and have some patience watching it grow.
But the question for many of us remains, how do you begin to create a culture of institutional engagement from first year right through graduate school? Not an artificial culture, but one that taps into the real and lived richness of student experience.
Memorial is still a relatively young university. McGill, to take one illustrious example, was founded in 1821. Another example in the neighbourhood, UNB boasts its origins date back to 1785. With hundreds of years of alumni on their calendars, those universities are operating with of a strong sense of tradition. A student enters such an institution with a sense, however vaguely understood, of a noble history.
The most symbolic example of affinity in the Canadian landscape is that unmistakable gold and black ring worn by graduates of St. Francis Xavier University which was founded in the early nineteenth century. You can spot those X marks-the-spot rings at twenty paces. They instantly identify the wearer in a way no other university comes close. Next to the ring, school ties — essentially a British tradition — can easily help mark a guy as a graduate of this or that institution. Consider the recent fuss over Canadian Olympic men’s hockey team coach Mike Babcock who conspicuously wore his “lucky” McGill red tie during the heart-pounding gold medal victory game. By some reports, you couldn’t find that tie anywhere on the shelves at McGill once pictures of Babcock celebrating behind the bench went viral. Who knew a school tie would have so much cultural capital?
But these things — rings and ties — are time-honoured markers of institutional affinity, signs invested with a lot of personal and pubic meaning.
Memorial is very much a product of the twentieth century. We are still evolving our traditions and living out the first stage of our history. Our alumni have just started to cohere into an identifiable group. USA schools, especially in the Ivy League, have virtually invented elaborate ways of ensuring their students have a strong sense of institutional loyalty. We tend to be a bit more shy about that, but we are learning to get over it.
A complication, or, perhaps, more to the point, a challenge for today’s fundraisers, is how to reach a new kind of student, the kind that we now commonly call the Millennial. Unlike Boomers and their ilk, the Millennial – with his/her enlarged opposable thumbs communicates quite differently with the world, largely relying on texting and social media, not on print, for information and interaction. Will such tech-dependent creatures inhabit a different sense of affinity entirely? Are our ideas about building a community of graduates based on shared experiences and happy memories of Memorial outdated? If they are, as I suspect, then we need to be more creative and wise about communicating with them. We probably have to rethink the notion of community entirely. How, for instance, can we build a sense of belonging with online students, an increasingly large element of our student population?
I guess the big question is, how can we make friends of our students – with benefits?